Most of the founders were wealthy and came from the colonial aristocracy. Hamilton came from neither, but rose through force of will, political drive and acumen to the highest echelons of power. He was born in the Caribbean and historians place his birth on January 11, in either 1755 or 1757. Hamilton’s mother, Rachel, left an unhappy marriage and met James Hamilton, Alexander’s father. Because his parents were not legally married, Alexander was prohibited from attending school and instead was educated privately. He read extensively from the family’s collection of classical works. His Mother’s death and his Father’s abandonment rendered the young Hamilton an orphan. He served as a clerk, read widely, and wrote an essay on an earthquake that drew the attention of community leaders, who seeing his potential then sent Hamilton to the colonies for further education. Hamilton’s history at King’s College, now Columbia, is noteworthy for a number of reasons. As a member of a Revolutionary militia that included other students, Hamilton quickly distinguished himself. He became Washington’s aide and would play a key role at the Battle of Yorktown. Hamilton gained valuable experience under Washington, became his trusted advisor, a position that would give Hamilton great influence in the early years of the United States and later, as a commercial republic.
After the Revolutionary War, Hamilton remained active in law and politics and founded the Bank of New York. The organization of the U.S. under the Articles of Confederation was weak and lacked the ability to generate revenues to pay soldiers back-pay. Hamilton played a key role in New York ratifying the Constitution, through his writings with Madison and Jay in the Federalist Papers. Prior to calling the Annapolis Convention, the forerunner to the Constitutional Convention, he was a key actor in reorganizing the war-damaged King’s College, as Columbia College, of which you may have heard.
Contrary to his humble origins, Hamilton proved to be an advocate for a strong central government, commerce, and industry. Some said he embraced the aristocracy that spurned him in his youth. As Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton organized the First National Bank of the United States, wrote a series of influential reports and engaged in activities to advance the cause of a stronger Federal government. Some challenged his legal maneuvers as stepping beyond the enumerated powers in the Constitution; all saw his work as charting the course for future cabinet officials and informing the jurisprudence of the new nation.
The differences among Jefferson, Adams, Madison, Hamilton, and Jay cannot be understated. Their disputes were public, rancorous even; Hamilton’s disputes with Aaron Burr proved fatal. Hamilton died from injuries after a duel with Burr, in 1804. Like Jefferson, the man whose vision he so often squared against, the biography of Alexander Hamilton is also the biography of the United States. He, likely more than the other founders, recognized the power of the news media to inform and shape public opinion. Along with the Federalist Papers, Hamilton engaged in a number of proxy wars whose skirmishes blotted the pages of the fledgling nation’s newspapers. Hamilton founded the New York Evening Post, in 1801, to combat Jefferson’s ideas and ideals.
Written by Seth David Halvorson, Department of Philosophy, Columbia University
Alan Brinkley, The Unfinished Nation, 6th Edition
A Companion to the American Revolution, Blackwell